Sergey Nivens - Fotolia

Where is 3D printing in manufacturing most useful?

Most manufacturers are still experimenting with 3D printing, but a growing number of companies have taken it a step further and are incorporating it into production processes.

Most manufacturing companies have considered the possibility of introducing 3D printing techniques and equipment to their factory floors, though not that many have actually done so. The majority of manufacturers are either experimenting in the engineering lab with 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, or are perhaps using it for Rapid prototyping, which can produce a working model of a design more quickly and inexpensively.

But a growing number of companies are, in fact, implementing 3D printing in manufacturing to produce their final parts and products that are sold to customers -- and these 3D printed parts and products aren't just novelties or curiosities. They can be high-performance parts and products for mission-critical applications that require high precision and reliable performance.

Additive manufacturing, at least in its current state, is not well-suited for high volume production; therefore, it is not seeing use for producing consumer products. It is, however, entering production for small-lot and single items, particularly for parts with intricate geometry that would otherwise require expensive tooling, dies, molds or fixtures.

In addition to the production of new parts, additive manufacturing has proven particularly valuable for producing service parts that are out of production. It was recently reported that the U.S. Air Force is now using 3D printing in manufacturing to create a replacement toilet cover for the C-5 Galaxy cargo plane. Because the C-5 has been out of production since 2001 and component parts are no longer being produced by the plane's manufacturer Lockheed Martin, they have to custom make new parts.

The Air Force has now relied on 3D printing at least three times in the past few years to produce C-5 toilet covers at a cost of about $300 a piece, compared to the average cost of $10,000 for previous replacements made the old-fashioned way.

Aerospace manufacturers are also active users of 3D printing in manufacturing. They are attracted to its ability to produce intricate parts, some of which would be impossible to produce in one piece with conventional techniques. The additive-made part can be stronger and more reliable than the assembly -- with fewer parts and no assembly required -- and it can be lighter in weight, which is an important factor in that industry.

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